Privilege Blog

Wearing White Before Ever

Mel and Cricket have both mused this week about wearing white before Memorial Day. Let me say this. I can find no record at all of this rule’s origin. Let me now also say this. Wear white whenever you want.

Think about it. Rules are made for two reasons. First, between peers, to ensure efficient functioning. Think soccer, Go Fish, the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. Second, by the ruling power to ensure control of the subordinate group. Think grade school, the Army, Jim Crow.

White clothes involve rules between peers to ensure efficient functioning? Bear with me. The unendurable difficulty of laundry prior to the modern Appliance Era made clothes you had to wash any more than absolutely necessary impractical, if not tools of torture. Lye was involved. And those who didn’t wash by hand were lucky, yes, lucky, to use a piece of equipment called a “mangle”. Right. Mangle. The rule No White Clothes Before Memorial Day, when one might hope to be done with snow and ice and slush, and puddles might be shorter lived, spared an entire cadre of washerwomen unnecessary labor and their employers unnecessary cost.

This edict may also have given the haves one more sign to distinguish themselves from the have nots. On a late summer morning, possibly, in the second half of the 19th century, possibly, the lady of the house, someone related to me, possibly, woke up and contemplated packing to go back to New York from New Jersey, or to Boston from the Cape. Exhausted by the thought, she said to her maid, “It’s just not right to wear white before Memorial Day. We will leave our white clothes here. And”, she said over her shoulder to her husband, “Darling, you should leave those white bucks behind as well. You know you won’t be wearing seersucker during the Season.” So anyone who participated in the Season, in New York, in Boston, in London (come on, someone else read Georgette Heyer, right?), would not wear white in town, for fear of being marked as someone with no summer house. Horror of all horrors. ( I feel compelled to say I have my tongue in my cheek.) Again, all this is only possible.

If you and your peers want to agree to wear white only after Memorial Day or Easter please do. (I have far more trouble with rules made by one group of humans in order to suppress or shame another group of humans. For any reason. But that’s a separate issue.) I stand my ground that the wearing of white no longer has absolute social significance. Even my mother, the Boston debutante, wears white whenever she pleases.

I asked her.

10 Responses

  1. I have yet another; well-raised Kentucky girls are raised that Derby Day is the start of the white-wearing summer…

  2. I always really enjoy the White Rules debate. My personal rule is not to wear tights+boots in the same week as springy white. But that’s mostly to avoid closet confusion.

  3. Thanks for the comment on my most recent post!

    My sorority at Alabama has “no white before Easter” on the books.

    Also in the books: “If you can see see your breath, we shouldn’t see your toes.”

  4. Interesting! I would never have put that reasoning together on my own, but now that you mention it, it makes perfect sense considering the time in which it emerged. Sounds like it's time to chuck a clearly dated, arguably elitist tradition.

    I'm now feeling even more happy about the white capris & handbag I'm sporting today.

  5. What great reasoning! I grew up with the “No White” rule, and altho I break it regularly now, I still feel a little edgy each time…

  6. I love white, but right now my ass is too fat to even contemplate white pants, regardless of the date. I’m gonna go check out those watches, though.

  7. If anyone can feel edgy, or happy about their outfits, hooyah! And it makes perfect sense to me that this is the kind of thing a sorority would have rules about. Harmonious functioning between peers, we hope.

  8. Um..ya the “white rule” is a funny thing. People restrain from wearing white until Memorial Day and cease wearing it after Labor Day but women wear white wedding gowns all the time. That’s a mix signal when the bride has a colorful reputation, you know?
    I guess being “color blind” has it’s place.

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